Date: February 22, 1999
Section: Stand and Deliver
Title: Using Humor in a Speech? Proceed with Caution
Author: By Steve Adubato
Using humor can be a powerful communication tool. It can help a speaker bond with an audience. It can ease tension at a potentially confrontational meeting and it can help get a particular point across. The use of humor can also be tremendously risky and can produce disastrous results. The following are some tips regarding the use of humor in public presentations from the experience I”ve gained as a trainer as well as someone who has to speak in a variety of settings.
Personally, I avoid telling jokes. The main reason I don”t tell jokes is that I”m not good at it. I often forget the punch line or mess up the details of a joke. The risk you run with a poorly told joke is either dead silence or nervous laughter. Also, It”s easy to offend a particular audience in these hypersensitive times. It is never appropriate to begin a speech with, “Did you hear the one about the Jewish lawyer and the Italian contractor?” Or, “How many Poles does it take to …?”
Ethnic humor, unless self-deprecating and universally perceived as not mean-spirited, is a big communications mistake. Such humor is bound to offend someone in your audience. It”s also smart to avoid humor that stereotypes people, including women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays or white men.
The other thing I”ve learned is that there is a big difference between humor and comedy. I”m a pretty good storyteller, but I”m not a stand-up comedian. That”s true for most people. When a speaker tries to be a comic the result is usually disastrous. Consider New York Senator Chuck Schumer”s recent comments at the Washington Press Club Foundation Dinner in D.C. In an effort to be seen as a regular guy with a sense of humor, Schumer delivered material that was clearly written by a staff person and inappropriate for the setting.
In the speech aimed at putting down new House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Schumer said, “I”d like to congratulate Dennis on his appointment as speaker by Tom De Lay.” The joke was supposed to be that the influential Congressman De Lay handpicked Dennis Hastert as his puppet Speaker of the House. Schumer”s comments, with the new Speaker sitting on the podium, were seen as mean-spirited and inappropriate.
Schumer made things worse when he asked House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, “How many House managers does it take to screw over the president?” More groans and very few laughs. Senator Schumer”s attempt at humor failed.
The point here is that it”s best to use humor that is not only appropriate for a particular setting, but is tested in front of people who are going to be honest with you. Another key point when using humor in speeches is to make sure there is a common frame of reference for your comments. Some humor is universally understood. Most of this humor is about real life experiences.
Some of my most successful speech openings refer to humorous things that happened to me as a parent. The reason is that many people can relate to the challenge and funny situations associated with raising a child. However, there have been instances in which I”ve used lines from my favorite movie, The Godfather, or characters or story lines from a TV show, like Ally McBeal, that just don”t resonate. The problem is that not enough people in the audience have a frame of reference to be in on the joke. And, once you start explaining the joke or the reference it”s no longer funny.
Bottom line: Humor has its place, but is not guaranteed to enhance your next presentation or speech. It must be practiced and tested before you actually Stand & Deliver for real. Just ask Chuck Schumer.